Tragedy's trajectory

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McGill Reporter
October 11, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 03
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Tragedy's trajectory

McGill experts were at it again last week, trying to place the horrific events of September 11 into some kind of context while offering up some thoughts about what happens next.

The organizers of "After September 11th: A Round Table on Terrorist Attacks and Their Implications for Canada and the World" learned something from a similar round table held two weeks earlier. Taking a cue from that event's capacity-plus turnout, the organizers wisely opted for a much larger room this time.

Moderator and history professor Desmond Morton stated that the September 11 attacks broke almost 200 years of cozy domestic security.

Speaking as a Canadian, he said: "Our American neighbours have not been attacked since 1814, when we did the attacking.

"This is an episode which has changed thinking because it is an assault on the homeland. This really does change the way people in this country and the United States think of themselves."

Economics professor William Watson addressed the attacks' economic effect.

"I want to preface everything I'm about to say with an unusually candid admission that nobody really knows," he began, "but we can at least get some sense of the order of magnitude."

Thanks to the media barrage of explicit images, the physical damage to lower Manhattan seems insurmountable, and Watson quoted just-released figures which estimated the long-term cost to New York City (including repairing damaged buildings and infrastructure, rebuilding the twin towers, and replacing damaged office equipment) at around $105 billion.

"It's obviously a large loss, but the U.S. is a huge economy. In absolute terms, the physical damage is less than the Kobe earthquake; Japan has been flat in economic terms for the last 10 years, but the Kobe earthquake had a barely perceptible effect on the Japanese economy. So that terrible devastation that you see [in New York] is actually very small."

In the immediate future, he predicts (barring further terrorist attacks or full-scale war -- this was, remember, before Sunday's bombings of Afghanistan) that the U.S. recession will be "a little deeper than it would've been, with recovery toward the middle or end of next year."

But the long-term costs are more serious, especially for Canada. Money that would have been better utilized elsewhere will be poured into military upgrades, police forces and border guards. This may result in reduced openness between Canada and the U.S., "de-globalization, if you will. Borders will become more important again.

"Now," Watson added, "if you thought globalization was bad, then I guess deglobalization will be a good thing." But, keeping in mind that 40% of Canadian production is exported to the States, increased border security might dissuade American firms from working in, and with, Canada: "We would therefore take an economic hit."

On the other hand, Watson suggested, there might be economic compensations for this jump in border security (such as a common North American tariff, eliminating the need for duty checks), which could result in a rosier economic future.

Sociology professor Morton Weinfeld, director of the Ethnic Studies Program, spoke about the impact on multiculturalism in Canada.

He called multiculturalism "a balance between two competing forces. On the one hand, you have the universal objective of equal citizenship -- what makes us alike. On the other hand, you have a second thrust which focuses on our distinctiveness -- cultural distinction, what makes us different, what makes us unique."

He said the U.S. attacks will force Canada to "recalibrate that equilibrium," shifting it toward the goal of commonality, and "placing suspicion" on cultural difference. It's a regrettable scenario, he said, and it's already coming to pass. One example is the recent spate of vandalism of Canadian mosques.

Muslim-Canadians, already "in a precarious position in terms of social standing in Canada" (according to various studies conducted well before last month), will now be "operating under a cloud of suspicion, facing a rise of prejudice and discrimination. In extreme form, it's what one can call an almost religious or ethnic McCarthyism."

That's the bad news. But Weinfeld also has good news. He says that Canada has come a long way since 21,000 Japanese-Canadians were interned in camps in 1942, and "there is a heightened sensitivity in the elite sectors of Canadian opinion -- all the way up to the prime minister -- that we Canadians ought not to repeat the errors of the past."

He also referred to the historical actions of Italian-Canadians and German-Canadians, who "responded as Canadians" to homeland atrocities, claiming their true cultures were being sullied by unwanted extremists. Weinfeld concluded his talk by wondering if Canada will see a similar response from Islamic-Canadians, driven to strengthen and redefine "their place within the Canadian mosaic."

Political science professor Harold Waller talked of the psychological impact of the U.S. attacks, "which literally came out of the blue ... shattering the security that their homeland was immune to attack." He raised questions about achieving the necessary correctives (vanquishing the foes, delivering "demonstrable security protection") to eliminate nagging doubts among the general population.

Ultimately, despite a "profound and long-lasting impact," he believes "the U.S. has the capability and resiliency to respond and adapt. It will need outstanding leadership, however, to cope with this challenge."

Political science professor Michael Brecher, a veteran observer of political crises and armed conflicts in the world, offered some long-term global optimism by describing the historical "war-tranquility pattern," a curious phenomenon in which "every advance toward peace has followed war." He cited numerous examples, including Resolution 242, which followed the Six Day War of 1967. "If you wish to move toward some kind of resumption of peace talks," he said, "you seem to need a recurrence of violence -- but not necessarily full-scale war.

"In that sense, one might argue that the good news is that these episodes of violence, as costly as they may be, are almost invariably followed by a stage forward in the peace process."

Law professor Armand de Mestral examined U.S. president George W. Bush's declaration "This is an act of war," considering whether the attacks did in fact fit the Geneva Convention's Law of War -- or were they a "horrendous violation of criminal law in the United States, to be punished by that criminal law?"

De Mestral spoke of the need to legally define terrorism, suggesting that this new paradigm of non-state attacks may require the development of "a crime against the law of nations, universally recognized and prosecutable in any country."

Political science professor T.V. Paul, an authority on international security and South Asian politics, painted a pessimistic picture of Pakistan's future. As the military rulers in Pakistan gain acceptance from the U.S. and its allies and as they face the prospect of trying to control protests against the U.S. staged by those Pakistanis who strongly support Afghanistan , Paul declared, "Democracy is dead in Pakistan for the next 20 years."

He also suggested that weapons of mass destruction will take on frightening new implications once taken outside the traditional context of "state actors" -- in other words, the old "deterrence" argument doesn't wash when dealing with non-state wildcards.

The evening's final speaker was political science professor Mark Brawley, an expert on global superpowers.

He talked about the dramatic decline in U.S. consumer confidence, worsened by the mixed messages presented by the U.S. government (i.e., it's business as usual, but brace yourself for more attacks).

"The simple story is the global economy will do worse. I could probably stop there and that'd be it." But he instead ended on a somewhat optimistic note, adding, "I think people are maybe reading too much into a lot of the security measures and their impact on globalization.

"There were immediate impacts on the border, but the one part of the transborder flow that has never really been that open in this period of globalization is the flow of people -- and that's the part where things are going to get a lot tighter.

"Whether that's going to affect the way globalization trends have been proceeding, I don't think so."

Shortly before the round table, many of its participants and other professors and graduate students interested in U.S.-Canada relations were invited to an informal discussion with Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Kergin.

On the subject of U.S.-Canada borders, Kergin said, "One of my challenges right now is to try to see to it that there isn't an overreaction." He added, "There is no evidence that any of the hijackers came from Canada.

"Our refugee claimants have more rights and freedoms than those in the U.S.," Kergin said. "But there are more 'illegals' in the U.S." It's a bigger country with more large cities where potential terrorists "can disappear into that huge population. One you're in the U.S. it's easy to go underground."

Kergin suspects the attacks will lead to a fundamental shift in the Bush administration's view of the world. "He campaigned on the merits of small government and dumping international agreements" and once elected "did a good job on that.

"The U.S. now realizes it needs as many friends around the table as it can get. No country, no matter how powerful, can be an island unto itself. And they will have to pay a price to keep that coalition on side." He predicts the U.S. will be more open to compromise. "That might seem Pollyannaish, but I think it's also realpolitik."

Kergin believes Bush is more intelligent than some suggest.

"He's been very clever about the people he chose for his administration." Kergin notes that presidential candidates typically select running mates to strengthen their own chances of winning the election -- the prospective vice-president has a geographic or demographic appeal that the prospective president does not.

Bush's vice-president, the widely experienced but not terribly charismatic Dick Cheney "has no political appeal to anybody. But he's a smart operator." Secretary of State Colin Powell might well have won the U.S. presidency had he run. "A lot of presidents would think, 'Powell is too popular. He'll overshadow me.'"

Kergin believes that the U.S. will be very careful in the sorts of military actions it undertakes. "It's a very fragile coalition." Given more recent events, it seems we'll soon find out.

With files from Daniel McCabe

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